Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart isn’t a great book. I’d hesitate to call it a good book. But the chapter he devotes to Donald McGavran, Rick Warren, and explorations of the Homogeneous Unit Principle in the Church Growth movement is well worth the time it would take to track down this book at your local public library and read the 21-page chapter titled Religion: The Missionary and the Megachurch.
Bishop’s book is narrower and easier to read than Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, but it more or less documents the same basic cultural shift: about 1965 something happened in the United States and evidence began to surface that people had lost faith in traditional institutions: political parties, mainline churches, fraternal organizations, trade unions, and yes, bowling leagues. Now forty years later the mass of free agents created in the two generations after this shift have/are reorganizing themselves in new ways that bode ill/well for the distant future depending on your point of view. The reference points that this narrative interpolates are all from the social sciences: experiments in psychology labs, surveys, and data mining from pools of existing or byproduct data.
For someone like me with a background in mathematics and harder sciences this stuff makes me a bit queasy when it calls itself “science.” It just isn’t. As Ian Shoales once said: “If taking surveys is so scientific, where’s the control group?” But I digress.
Donald McGavran is of course the father of the modern Church Growth movement. He was a more or less failed missionary in India when he heard from Bishop J. Waskom Pickett the story of Ditt, a man from the Chuhra caste in Punjab, who became a Christian, and through whose efforts in his family, village, and caste converted most of his caste between the 1870s and about 1915. The realization that this sort of social-network-borne evangelism worked transformed missionary practices, in Bishop’s story, from being centered in missionary schools and hospitals that were primarily outposts of a kind of religious colonialism to being centered in “peoples.”
McGavran brought this idea home to Fuller Theological Seminary, codified it in the language of the social sciences, and it gelled as the Church Growth movement. Bishop also tells the story of how this idea came to Warren, and how it serves as a prime example (for Bishop) of how it created the modern megachurch, both as something with a strong internal identity and (more importantly to Bishop) as an identity separate from the outside world.
Bishop (spoiler alert!) is a political liberal, and tells the story of the transformation of missionary work from services (schools and hospitals) to evangelism in the language of modern theological liberals, by casting it as Public Protestantism (social services, good works) vs. Private Protestantism (evangelism, good theology). As such he has kind of a tin ear for the conservative elements of the narrative; so when he refers to theological conservatives thinking evangelism is “the better way to make the world a better place” it’s clear that he’s stuck in his own frame of reference and as such doesn’t understand anything that doesn’t make sense in that context.
I mean after all everybody knows that theological conservatives aren’t primarily concerned with making the world a better place.
It’s helpful to have this background on paper when hearing contemporary discussions of “purpose-driven churches” and the Church Growth movement generally; its critics are so rooted in their own point of view it’s sometimes hard to tell what they’re so upset about. E.g. when Paul Washer engages in this sort of vague hyperbole
What does Jerusalem have to do with Rome? And what do we have to do with all these modern day social sciences that were actually created as a protest against the Word of God? And why is it that evangelism and missions and so called church growth is more shaped by the anthropologist, the sociologist and the Wall Street student who is up on every cultural trend? [link]
It’s helpful to have some idea what he’s talking about.
Ergun Caner’s recent claim that any preacher with 200 hours of preaching under his belt could be called a liar came unbidden to mind while I was recently looking for a particular Paul Washer sermon online. I realize that the practice of making and delivering sermons differs considerably from tradition to tradition, and I would argue from generation to generation, so it’s hard to compare one sermon from one speaker at another time to another at another, but I do think it’s reasonable to ask what’s appropriate behavior on the part of a given preacher in handling Scripture, making truth claims, constructing arguments, etc.
I would also argue that preachers who outright lie from the pulpit are rare; slanderers more common; casters of vague aspersions quite common; and men who tell scary stories because they are effective rather than true or edifying are embarrassingly common.
Anyway, in my searches I stumbled across a relatively obscure item by A. W. Tozer at SermonIndex.Net entitled “The Menace of the Religious Movie” [link]. This is actually a reading (not by Tozer) of a section from the book Tozer on Worship and Entertainment [link] which is in turn a collection of excerpts of sermons and writings by Tozer that are thematically related, and one of those things that would be read only by dedicated Tozer readers, compulsives, completists, and people trolling his corpus looking for lies and heresy. It may or may not have been a sermon at some point. It still makes for fascinating listening, and I recommend it, not because I agree with Tozer’s claims, argument, or conclusion, but rather because it is so thought-provoking.
Here’s the anonymously-contributed outline from the comments page:
Tozer, in keeping with the historic Christian stance on the theater, condemns the religious movie, giving the following seven reasons:
1. It violates the scriptural law of hearing.
2. The religious movie embodies the mischievous notion that religion is, or can be made, a form of entertainment.
3. The religious movie is a menace to true religion because it embodies acting, a violation of sincerity.
4. They who present the gospel movie owe it to the public to give biblical authority for their act: and this they have not done.
5. God has ordained four methods only by which Truth shall prevail — and the religious movie is not one of them.
6. The religious movie is out of harmony with the whole spirit of the Scriptures and contrary to the mood of true godliness.
7. I am against the religious movie because of the harmful effect upon everyone associated with it.
There is an element to this that is essentially Tozer’s presentation of the well-worked saw “the medium is the message” [link], and which could as easily be turned against television as against movies (Tozer doesn’t do this). And he dodges the question of whether reading Scripture qualifies as “hearing,” which he considers appropriate to the exclusion of all alternatives. But the fascinating part to his argument is that acting itself is sinful because it is insincere, and portraying a Biblical character is arrogant and disrespectful.
From my point of view it appears to me that Tozer is elevating things that are incidentally true in Scripture to be equal to things that are fundamentally true by claiming that Scripture is to be heard and not seen (portrayed), and it sounds to me like he’s reserving presenting Scripture as a task for professional preachers of a sort as opposed to artists and particularly filmmakers. I think he also makes an argument from silence in suggesting that because Scripture doesn’t mention certain art forms they are forbidden, slanders actors and theater people unnecessarily, and pushes over several straw men. Still at the end I think the premise of his central point: — that not all forms of worship are equally acceptable — is well-taken if not necessarily well-made.
Oh and by the way: because Tozer doesn’t center his argument on having anything to do with himself or his personal life story, I don’t think he wanders into personal misrepresentation/lying by embellishing territory here. Then again, this isn’t strictly speaking a sermon.